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What makes strategy workshops fail or succeed.

By Ruth Tearle


What is the role of the CEO in ensuring an effective strategy process? Think back to your last strategic planning conference. Was it powerful, exciting and creative? Did your team get fully involved in the process? Did everyone think strategically and creatively about the future of the organization. Did you all come away with a common vision that you can use to guide your every day decisions? Do you have a vision that your leadership team can use to inspire and energise all your people?

Or, did you come away from the workshop feeling disappointed and cheated? Perhaps you hired an external consultant, and he/she failed to deliver what you expected. After 3 days of listening to debates, nothing tangible emerged. All in all, the whole process was simply a waste of time.

If you've ever experienced a less than satisfactory strategy workshop, read on. Find out what makes some strategy retreats fail, and some work. But more importantly learn what you as a leader can do, to ensure the success of your own strategic planning workshop.

There are a number of warning signs that indicate that a strategy session is likely to fail. These occur, before the workshop, during the workshop and, after the workshop.

1. Warning signs before a strategy workshop


1.1 The organization is not ready for strategy.

Strategy is a useful tool for helping a team to develop a clear picture of what they need to be doing to be successful within the future. However people find it almost impossible to focus on their long-term future when an organization is experiencing:

  • Retrenchments.
  • Organizational restructuring.
  • Operational crises.
  • Cash flow problems.warning-sign
  • Labour disputes
  • An impending merger or takeover.

Try to resolve any short-term crises before you engage in an exercise that requires a long-term focus.

1.2 The team is unable to think strategically.

A team cannot think creatively or strategically if:

  • There is conflict within the team.
  • Team members do not trust one another or their leader.
  • Individuals feel they haven't been treated fairly.
  • People feel insecure about their jobs.
  • People are frustrated due to unclear roles and structures.
  • A battle for leadership is brewing within your top team.

Beware. If you fail to resolve issues like these before your strategy session, your team may turn your workshop into a gripe session or a battle field.

1.3 You as a leader cannot answer the question "Why are you doing strategy?" convincingly.

If you are doing strategy for the following reasons, you could be doing yourself more harm than good.

  • It is something you do every year. It is on the company calendar.
  • Other people (your team, your HR department, your strategy department or a consultant) has told you that the organization needs to do strategy. You're however, not entirely convinced.

Strategy is the first step in a change process. During the strategy process you effectively take two 'photographs' of your organization: a picture of your organization today, and a vision of how it needs to be in the future. You then develop steps to lead you to your desired future.

Strategy creates an expectation for change.

Change means work. The responsibility for this work rests with you the leader. After the workshop you will be expected to invest your time and energy in communicating your vision, and driving through the changes needed to achieve your new vision. If you have neither the time, energy nor commitment for this, you would be wasting your time doing strategy in the first place.

1.4 You've booked the venue, now you just have to find a consultant.

Who you are trusting with the future of your organization? And for that matter - your own career?

Before you ask your secretary or your purchasing department to find a consultant for you, ask yourself an important question.

You are creating problems for yourself if they simply look for:

  • Someone whose diary is free on the day you booked your venue.
  • Someone who will agree with everything you suggest. (You want to try to do 7 days work in 1 day, they'll do it for you. You want to use half the day discussing other issues - it's not a problem. They assure you that they can achieve everything with no effort from your side at all.)
  • The cheapest of three quotes.

Ensure your strategic planning facilitator is someone you can trust. Someone who will help you to define and achieve specific goals.

2. Warning signs during a strategic planning workshop.

2.1 Losing focus.

Building a shared vision in a limited time period requires a great deal of concentration and discipline from a group. When a group is focused, the process of creating a vision becomes easier, quicker and more exciting. As the group achieves, they feel positive. They contribute more. The quality of their thinking improves. And the workshop becomes fun, exciting and effortless. However a group's concentration, and creativity is often disturbed by:

  • Individuals asking for time to discuss all sorts of unrelated issues – “as its rare that we as a group have time together.” When ‘critical’ operational issues are discussed in the middle of a strategy session, the group loses its strategic focus, and positive energy.
  • Individuals doing other urgent operational work during the session – or at breaks. They find it difficult to get their minds back on track.
  • Interruptions from mobile phones, or secretaries bearing ‘urgent messages’.
  • Other ingrained habits that cause strategy to fail.

2.2 "Follow the leader."

follow-leaderThe group constantly watches the leader for cues on how to behave. If the leader is enthusiastic, positive and focused on the task at hand, the group follows his lead. If the leader is critical, negative and distracted, so is the group. A positive group achieves. A negative group blames.

2.3 Unequal participation.

Often groups have a habit of behaving in a way that prevents everyone from participating equally. Some members hold back, while other members dominate the discussions. To get a 'common vision' you need everyone to contribute. Discuss with your facilitator, how you can both create a climate where everyone is able to participate equally.

2.4 Behaviours that prevent creative strategic thinking.

Everyone loves to say they’re innovative thinkers. And yet most groups habitually stifle creative thinking that doesn’t fit their existing paradigms. A group will often undermine or simply ignore people who come up with new ideas. As a leader you can control the creativity of your group. Watch how creative a team becomes when you as a leader positively recognise innovative ideas.

2.5 Lack of leadership.

Delegates often arrive at a strategy workshop with a number of concerns such as:

  • Will the strategic plan be forgotten back at work?
  • When will other unresolved issues get addressed?
  • How will the plan be communicated to others who didn't attend the workshop?
  • Will the group waste time grumbling, complaining and blaming?
  • Will anything get achieved?

When a leader addresses these concerns at the beginning of the workshop, the group is motivated to contribute actively to the workshop. Where these concerns are ignored, groups often feel they are wasting their time.

2.6 Intellectual burnout.

Creative thinking, participation, and focused concentration requires energy. Every group has a certain amount of energy. Some groups become mentally fatigued at 4:00pm, others at 5:30pm. When a group is exhausted, it is a waste of time to attempt to do any further work. In fact, the best way to prepare the group for the next day is to encourage them to do something that requires no thinking at all. (E.g. a walk.) Taking a break enhances the creative process in that the subconscious mind continues working on the day's discussions.

Sometimes, when a session ends early, leaders who are under pressure to make certain operational decisions are tempted to ask the group to stay behind to debate certain issues. For them it seems like an ideal time since the group is already together. However, an exhausted group does not contribute effectively to any debate. Forcing a group to work when they have no energy has four negative results. It irritates people. It tires them further. It takes their minds off creative strategic thinking and it prevents their subconscious minds from working.

3. Warning signs after the workshop

What you do as a leader after a strategic planning workshop will either build trust or cynicism in your team.

3.1 Lack of recognition for what the group has achieved.


The leader should conclude the workshop by thanking his team for their contribution, and highlighting what they have achieved so far. He then needs to point out the first steps they will take after the workshop to begin implementing their vision.

Sometimes a workshop seems to end abruptly once the common vision has been defined. Some people leave a workshop early to catch planes, or attend other meetings. Those remaining behind, feel deflated. They begin to wonder what they've achieved and whether the session was worth the effort. There is a saying that "success breeds success". It is important that people feel positive about what they achieved during the workshop in order to encourage them to continue with the process after the workshop.



3.2 It is over when the workshop is over

Once a strategy workshop is over, many leaders are overwhelmed by the demands of day to day operations. They feel that they've 'done strategy' if they've hosted a workshop.

understand-the-gameHowever a strategic planning workshop is step one of a long journey towards the future. After the workshop a leader will still need to:

  • Communicate the vision.
  • Ensure each division and SBU creates goals and plans to support the vision.
  • Ensure that projects that cut across different divisions are catered for.
  • Ensure the organizations values and culture support the new vision.
  • Ensure that every system is aligned to the vision.
  • Plan the changes that will be required to ensure the success of the vision.

Every great journey is accomplished a step at a time. This job cannot be accomplished by one person in a couple of weeks. Rather it is something that everyone in the organization needs to learn to do on a day to day basis.


An effective strategy process combines 6 carefully planned elements. The selection of participants; the quality of the information the group is able to share; the quality of the group analyses; the choice of the venue; the role of the facilitator, and the role of the leader.

4.1 Selection of participants.

Before you plan your workshop, carefully select those who will be attending. Your choice of participants will impact on the group dynamics of the session, the end result you are able to achieve, and how the strategy gets implemented after your workshop. (Read the article : How to select delegates for a strategic planning workshop.)

4.2 The quality of the information the group is able to share.

Groups that are more informed about strategic issues, produce better strategies.

Groups that are up to date on political, social, economic, and technological trends, best practices, industry trends, competitor trends and internal issues are able to be far more creative in their thinking, than groups without this knowledge.

Get people to do some reading before the workshop or use the Strategic Trends Tool during the workshop.

4.3 The quality of the group analyses.

To create a quality strategy, the group needs to analyze anything that could impact on the organization in the future. Typical strategic analyses include analyses of stakeholders, strategic trends, scenarios, competitors, industry trends, best practices and the internal operating environment of the organization. The better the quality of the analyses, the better the quality of the vision.

4.4 The choice of venue.

The way the venue is set up affects group dynamics. To encourage equal participation, organise 3-5 round tables for small group work. Ensure the venue is air-conditioned and away from all distractions of normal work.

4.5 The role of the strategic planning facilitator.

A strategic planning facilitator is like a sports coach. He/she can provide your group with the knowledge, encouragement, inspiration and a step by step process they can use to develop their own vision - and perform at their best. At the same time, he/she should be carefully chosen for his/her ability to help you achieve your goals as a leader.

4.6 The role of the leader.

Your strategic planning workshop is the beginning of the rest of your organization's life.

It is said that the role of the leader is to help ordinary people to produce extraordinary results.

If your strategic planning workshop is the beginning of the 'rest of your organizations life' make sure it sets the tone for how you want to lead your team into their future.

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